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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, September 19, 2004

A FOOTNOTE TO THE HISTORY OF CONCRETE POETRY

Yesterday I dropped by my neighborhood junk shop and picked up 3 books for 5 bucks -- 2 early ‘60s reprints of early ‘50s “Peanuts” collections, and a book I probably saw in my childhood but don’t remember, “The MAD Book of Word Power,” by Max Brandel, which came out in 1973. The cover has a classic Alfred E. Neuman portrait, and the MAD logo in red, and the words “WORD POWER” in black block letters, with the leftside stroke of the letter “W” raised up high into a Black Power fist, holding a blue flower. It’s a book of typographical and verbal-visual puns.

Brandel’s book came out at the tail end of the international boom in Concrete Poetry, and constitutes one of the largest and wittiest contributions to it. (Though note: The pleasure provided by his wit on the whole is undercut by a few instances of juvenile sexist & crude ethnic -- racist -- "jokes.")

Concrete poetry combines verbal and visual stimuli to comment on each other. An example from the boom era, by Aram Saroyan, in its entirety:


aaple


The double “a” inspires me to lengthen the vowel when sounding the word; the lengthened vowel opens the mouth, which is what one does when one bites an apple.

Brandel makes full use of the MAD magazine repertoire of images, which puts it right in the mainstream of what critic and poet Charles Bernstein has called Poetry Plastique, an intersection of verbal and visual arts, often produced collaboratively, as for example in the works by avant-garde poet Clark Coolidge and post-abstract-expressionist painter Philip Guston. But some of Brandel’s pieces use solely orthographical puns for their effects. Examples:

Thou sh lt not steaal!

LEST WE FO GET

SET THINE HOUSE IN ORDRE


Poetry Plastique was the name of a retrospective gallery show curated by Bernstein and Jay Sanders a few years ago, with works going back to the 1960s. It had the great flaw of ignoring the graffiti artists from the 1980s up to the present day, who unite virtuoso visual design with often cryptically allusive verbal flair. Brandel is even less likely to make it into the history books about concrete and visual poetry. The poetry perfessers tend to have some unproductive attitudes.


Comments:
Anyone who interprets Max Brandel's The MAD Book of Word Power as 'sexist' and 'racist' is not only completely lacking in a sense of humour, but totally out of touch with history. In fact, I would hold any such person as being partly responsible for the sheer lack of great imaginative and ground-breaking artwork today--one doesn't see books like Max Brandel's being published anymore, now, does one? The only thing in The MAD Book of Word Power that comes anywhere near racism is the visiopoetic reference to the traditional 'slitted' eyes of Japanese folk. I ask one this: Did he or she endure the perils and trauma of the World War II era as Mr. Brandel did...?
 
You're right, the slitted eyes are the only image that could be interpreted as racist in the book, and it jarred me, and I mentioned it in a too-generalized way. The reason I interpret the slits as racist is because that is their history -- it was originally an image intended to dehumanize East Asians. The book has only one sexist "joke" as well, about the greediness of housewives. In counterbalance, there are Mr. Brandel's satirical jabs, in the book, at the KKK and at white American xenophobia. As I said, I do think the book is one of the wittiest contributions to the school of Concrete Poetry, and it's a shame that the poetry historians don't notice it.
 
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